What do I believe? I’m not so sure. The more I think about everything, the less I believe in general and the more I realize I rely on belief, even though I don’t want to. But what exactly is “belief”? It has all sorts of definitions if you go to Dictionary.com, but I’ll give you an operational definition for the sake of this opinion piece, and it’s a definition that has commonality among all usages.
Belief is the acknowledgement of a reality absent objective proof.
Let that sink in for a bit.
Have you let that definition roll around in your brain a little? If not, read it again and then just sit for about five seconds and think about it.
The general gist I’m hoping you glean from that sentence is that everything you believe has little or no objective support for its basis in reality.
Okay; now let that italicized portion sink in.
I apologize to the philosophers reading this rant, since this topic is something you’ve probably analyzed ad nauseam. The vast majority of the rest of us have not, though, and it’s important that we start. You don’t have to be a brainiac to do so, either, and analyzing your beliefs is not something reserved for the “liberals” among us or the intellectual elite. It’s something we all should do regularly. We just don’t because we’ve been taught that they’re sacrosanct. We’re generally good about brushing our teeth and getting our hair cut. Most of us vacuum our rugs and keep our kitchens relatively clean. We throw out socks that have huge holes in them. We mostly have pretty well-organized lives on the outside, but on the inside, almost all of us are a complete mess, and it’s time that should change.
Let’s narrow down what a belief is by differentiating it from a fact-based assumption. It’s a fact-based assumption that I’m sitting on a chair right now. I know it with near certainty because my ass feels cushioned and is propped up about 17 inches off the floor. I can’t be totally certain that I’m sitting on a chair since I’m not currently looking at it, but based on external criteria that are logically verifiable (i.e., it looked like a chair the last time I saw it and then proceeded to sit on it) I can make a very safe, fact-based assumption that a chair is between my tailbone and the floor.
I find it odd that I’m currently trying not to look at the chair.
Yep. I looked. It’s a chair.
However, I don’t “believe” there is a chair under me. I don’t need belief to know that I’m on a chair since I have relatively conclusive, objective proof (assuming my senses are working properly) that I’m sitting on one.
I know it sounds strange to say, but even though I know I’m sitting on a chair, I don’t believe I’m sitting on one because the conclusion that I am can be safely drawn from an accumulation of readily available facts. I don’t need to go through the laborious process of developing a belief structure surrounding my separation from the floor because I have a conclusive agglomeration of facts that allows me to avoid doing so.
Now that I’ve said the same thing in about seven different ways, I hope you’re at least beginning to guess where I’m going next.
If you ask a young physicist if he “believes in” the “Big Bang,” he’ll usually say, “Sure. I mean, I’m a physicist. Why wouldn’t I?” It would be a trick question, though. He wouldn’t know that I’m really prodding him about the concept of belief rather than his opinion on the preponderance and quality of evidence in support of the “Big Bang” theory.
The reason he’d answer that way is that he’s a physicist, not a philosopher. (I’m not claiming to be a philosopher, by the way. I’m just some guy typing away at a keyboard who is trying to get a point across.) He doesn’t intuitively get that he doesn’t require belief per se to understand that all of spacetime began as a singularity about 13.7 billion years ago. He’s seen the evidence and knows the stringent requirements for statistical scientific certainty. He knows it firsthand and even aspires to develop a thesis that will withstand the stark fist of logic and rigorous standards wielded by the general scientific community.
Yet still, he’ll claim that he “believes in” the “Big Bang.” And therein lies the rub. Even those among us with high IQs and immediate access to all the quality information required to make such an assertion will still claim that “belief” is somehow involved in the equation.
Why? Because we don’t understand the nature of belief. We don’t understand it because religion has confused us all. It’s made us forget who and what we are.
We are rational beings at root. Our brains eat up sensory input and process it into an information vortex. We live, eat and breathe information. We’re a product of information. We’re users of information. We’re analyzers and thinkers. We synthesize and evaluate naturally.
While it’s a fact that we’re emotional beings who can have irrational responses to stimuli, our irrational actions don’t indicate that we’re irrational at root. We think there’s a good reason to do things at the time we do them. We may do stupid stuff, but it’s because we choose to weigh certain stimuli more than others for selfish reasons, not because we’re inherently illogical. Ayn Rand may have been a heartless bitch, but she had a salient intellectual point; self-interest is rational.
But we can be lied to, and if we’re lied to enough, we begin to confuse lies with the truth. Our rational information matrix can be used against us because we can confuse repetition with reality. Just ask Philip Morris; they’re the experts in that arena.
Joseph Goebbels was the Nazis’ head spin doctor. He was the Karl Rove of the Third Reich. (I’d call him the James Carville of the Third Reich, but Karl’s politics are closer to Adolf’s than James’ are.) His now infamous quote has been cut and sliced so many ways that you may not have been given it in its entirety. I’ll give it here sans edits so that you won’t miss the bleak sociopolitical message that comes with it.
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
So, you may ask, what does this quote from a vile monster have to do with religion? He doesn’t even mention religion in the quote, right? That’s correct. He doesn’t. He doesn’t have to.
The connection is that we are not far removed from a time in which the church was the state. It still is in many places, especially economically depressed places where education as we know it doesn’t exist. From ancient times, for thousands of years, the church was the state. Only during the past few centuries have we begun to recognize the importance of their separation in a rational world.
To put that timeframe into perspective, Judaism is about 4,000 years old, and the Neanderthals died out about thirty thousand years before that. We know from cave paintings (one of which is my tiled background) that religion is old. Totemistic religions surrounding the hunt (the primary mechanism of control was food then) have been pretty much proven to be the reason for the cave paintings.
So, for more than 95% of traceable human history, the church has run everything. One could argue that the monarchs of the dark ages were secular, but they couldn’t do anything without the support of the Catholic Church. Most of them honestly believed that their reign was mandated by God and were thus bound to His rules anyway.
It’s only during the past few hundred years that the church has begun to separate itself from governance and with that separation came a certain perspective that the church in its complacent arrogance didn’t contemplate when it originally agreed to its solely spiritual mission. (I’d be complacently arrogant too if I had been running the show for 35,000 years unopposed.) It was so certain in its rectitude that it didn’t anticipate the beginnings of a rationalist movement. Fortunately for us, several of our forefathers (in particular Jefferson and Franklin) did.
They knew the hell that historically plagued humankind as a result of church rule. They chose to end it. The protestant church agreed because it didn’t want to deal with the corruption the Catholic Church had been plagued with for more than a thousand years. Fortunately, the protestant church was naïve. It didn’t know that decision would lead to the eventual loss of its flock.
You may think I’m premature in predicting the demise of the church. I’m not. I’ve seen the trends toward total social secularism and they’re not slowing down. They’re accelerating. One in five people in total these days in America doesn’t identify with a particular religious group and one in twenty self-identify as avowed atheists, and virtually none of them were brought up that way. The difference in these stats between older and younger age groups is staggering and undeniable, hence the severe neoconservative religious right backlash we’re experiencing now. I’m not the only one noticing the numbers, and if there’s one thing that scares an organization (and it’s the same thing that scares us the most as people) it’s its demise.
So, back to belief in general.
From the time we’re small, we’re told stories by well-meaning people, usually our parents, that aren’t true. We believe them because of our lack of experience. Usually our information matrix rejects the more seldom told lies (Santa, the Easter Bunny, the “cabbage patch”) as we get older and more experienced, but the ones told weekly, often daily, remain, especially because others we respect have incorporated them into their belief structure. Part of our logical processing consists of patterning our behavior after those who come before us, which makes sense since they have more experience than we do and have survived just fine. Then we have kids and the cycle repeats.
We also come to believe stuff because it’s a shortcut to a world view. We don’t have the patience to follow the “why” questions from little kids to their logical conclusion and instead give them illogical “shut ‘em up” answers because it’s easier to do than give them a rational set of principles upon which to develop a Weltanschauung.
There’s another quote I’d like you to see that is directly on point. I’ll give you the quote first to see if you can guess who said it:
“I would defend the liberty of consenting adult creationists to practice whatever intellectual perversions they like in the privacy of their own homes; but it is also necessary to protect the young and innocent.”
Let’s see. He invented the concept of a satellite communication system that makes our planetary information infrastructure work today. He sometimes called himself a crypto-Buddhist, but asserted that Buddhism wasn’t a religion. He also wrote “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Oops. That probably gave it away.
He got the real crux of the issue: that children are impressionable and need to be given rational guidance, not lied to repeatedly about the provable nature of the universe. Doing so damages their logical processing capability to the extent that they are unable to distinguish between rationality and fantasy at a fundamental level, and they carry that disability with them the rest of their lives.
So, again, I ask. What do I believe?
I wish I had a complete list, but I don’t. My ability to distinguish between belief and fact-based assumption has been compromised, so I can’t give you an accurate answer, but I can start with something really basic.
I believe that love exists. There’s little experimental data on what “love” is, except for some hormonal covariances with emotional markers. The thing is, I know I love my family, my cats, and my friends, so there has to be something there. My belief in love creates its own reality. Is it objective reality? Certainly not, but it’s so important to me that I will likely never give it up. So it is with religion. Belief in religion creates its own subjective reality. Is it any wonder then that the religious will claim that “God is love?”
Another brilliant futurist (and devoutly religious Gnostic Christian / diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic) was Philip K. Dick, author of several stories that have since become a series of blockbuster sci-fi movies including “Total Recall” and “Paycheck.” A friend of his once asked him what “reality” was. His answer was simple and, on its face, eminently logical, but was also deeply flawed. Let’s see if you can get where I’m going with this line of reasoning while you read the quote:
“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
Another quote of his which is important here is the following:
“The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.”
Even one of the most poetically brilliant futurist philosophers of the 20th century can’t get the concept of reality straight. (The paranoid schizophrenia might admittedly have had something to do with that, too.) Is reality separate from belief as in the former quote, or is it based on belief as in the latter quote? His confusion on this point typifies the mental illness virtually all of us suffer from as a result of religious dogmatization from a young age. We can’t separate belief and reality because, to almost all of us, they are the same thing.
The problem is so deeply rooted in our psyches that we can’t really see the forest for the trees. So, what can we do about it as individuals? To continue the metaphor, first start looking for the sick and dead trees. Once you’ve identified them, don’t try to nurture then back to health. Cut them down. Replace them with a rational structure based on facts, not speculation. It’ll take work, but the potential payoff for us and our posterity is enormous, so we should make every effort to clean house where it counts the most.
The existence of God is not a fact. It just isn’t. No matter how many times you say it is, it just isn’t. There is no factual support for the God concept at all. There never has been. It’s all been a lie – a big one – told to you thousands and thousands of times, which is why you believe it. It is part of your reality that is nonsensical. Eliminate it from your mind and embrace rationality. Some day, you may be able to pass your newly found sanity on to a child who will benefit greatly from a rational early childhood foundation for thought.
When some annoying kid asks you “why” again and again, please don’t end with, “because that’s the way God made things” when you want to shut him up. At least have the decency to say, “I don’t know and I don’t think anyone else does either. Maybe you’ll figure that out one day.”